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Designer's Notebook: Stop Calling Games 'Addictive'

July 26, 2002

I don't think there can be any doubt that the game industry has very good aim. No, I'll go farther than that. It's an expert marksman, a crack shot.

As least, so long as what it's aiming at is its own foot.

Back in 1994, we shot ourselves in the foot when Sega and Nintendo, called on the carpet in front of Congress to answer questions about videogame violence, pointed fingers at each other instead of presenting a united front. This gave our elected representatives the distinct impression that the whole industry was composed of evil bloodsucking zombies whose sole purpose in life was to turn children into crazed killing machines. They came down hard and we ended up with rating systems, "report cards," and a terrible reputation.

We shoot ourselves in the foot pretty regularly, actually; or rather, small groups of individuals shoot the rest of us in the foot for the sake of a quick buck. Kingpin, Postal!, Carmageddon, Grand Theft Auto 3, State of Emergency; there's always someone who's prepared to ratchet down the taste threshold to a new low without any regard for what it does to the rest of the industry. It's especially unfortunate in the case of Grand Theft Auto 3, where an unusually well-crafted game has been used to propagate racist stereotypes and celebrate sexual exploitation. The consequences for children or society as a whole are as yet uncertain, but the consequences for us -- game developers -- are pretty clear. When I'm introduced to someone at a cocktail party as a computer game designer, and they stiffen and turn away, it's not my own games they're reacting to. So kind of my colleagues to provide the tar that smears me.

But we also shoot ourselves in the foot in other ways, some of them less directly obvious. Take the word "addiction," for example. We in the game industry know what we mean when we say that a game is "addictive." We think that quality in a game is a good thing: people like it, they keep coming back to it, and they want to play it more and more. I agree that it's a good thing. If a game has that quality, then it's probably a darn good game. But using the word "addiction" to describe that quality does us no favors with the general public. It connotes drug use, dissipation, helpless thralldom in the grip of an evil compulsion.

However, maybe it's the right term for the condition. I decided to look into this a bit, to see whether games really are addictive.

Nobody's quite sure what causes addiction, and at least for psychoactive substances the medical community prefers the term "dependence." Statements of the form "nicotine is X times more addictive than heroin" are suspect because they don't include any indication of how addictiveness is measured, and in fact I haven't been able to find any generally agreed-upon scale. Various proposals have been put forward for ordering the addictiveness of drugs according to certain qualities they and their users exhibit, but the rankings vary owing to subjective weightings of the criteria being used. If you think that difficulty quitting is more important, then nicotine is more addictive than alcohol; if you think that severity of withdrawal symptoms is more important, then alcohol is more addictive than nicotine.

There are two intertwined mechanisms involved in addiction: physical dependence and psychological addiction. Physical dependence has to do with the body's adaptation to a substance, so that more and more is needed to obtain the same effect, and in fact eventually the user doesn't feel normal without it. Psychological addiction is a behavioral problem: performance of the behavior (smoking, gambling, using the Internet, etc.) becomes a comforting, anxiety-relieving part of a daily routine.

One thing is certain: playing videogames doesn't involve inserting a foreign substance into the body. It might involve stimulating the brain to create certain substances of its own, but so does exercise and playing chess. Physical dependence is a state in which it becomes necessary to have the desired stimulus in order to feel normal. It's also characterized by withdrawal symptoms in the absence of the stimulus. Nobody stops feeling human if they stop playing Tetris. Nobody becomes physically unwell if they don't play Solitaire for a while. Clearly games don't involve physical addiction to a substance.

Smoking and drinking addictions have psychological components in addition to their physical ones.

What about psychological addiction? We're starting to learn that it's a very powerful effect, perhaps even more powerful than physical addiction. Smoking and drinking addictions have psychological components in addition to their physical ones; gambling is entirely psychological. People crave the excitement and tension of knowing that they could win, or lose, significant amounts of money.

But the fact is, any behavior can become psychologically addictive if it provides rewards of its own and distraction from external troubles. A fair number of students I knew in college, myself included for a while, became psychologically addicted to computer programming. Our behavior fit most of the criteria for addiction pretty well: we were rewarded by the creative power the machine gave us; while programming we didn't worry about homework or exams; and we gave up more important things, including food and sleep, to go on programming. The feeling of "just one more compile" was identical to the feeling of "just one more game." But nobody would say that computer programming was bad or sinful or dangerous because of its "addictive" qualities. We were simply the kinds of people for whom it was a risk. Most other students were able to resist the siren song of the silicon without any difficulty at all. And in time, most of us outgrew it as well.

So I think games can be psychologically addictive, but so can a lot of other activities. The danger of a psychological addiction is really proportionate to the damage it does. Gambling is very serious because it usually involves financial ruin for both the addict and his family: it consumes money rapidly. Computer programming isn't that serious; it's productive and some people actually make money off their addiction. Games are somewhere in between: they're time-consuming, but not that financially harmful, for reasons I'll get to later.

So much for the science. Let's look at how we talk about similar phenomena in other media.
With books, we say, "It was a real page-turner - I couldn't put it down!" We don't talk about addictive books. I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's (yes, Philosopher's, dammit, the name-change for the American market was an unworthy concession to ignorance) Stone seven times in the first six months I owned it, finding more and more wonderful details to cherish... but I would never that say it was addictive. When teenaged girls went to see Titanic over and over, nobody castigated James Cameron for making an "addictive" movie.

What games are is fun. And really good games are consistently, continuously fun. Some enable the player to enter what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi characterizes as a "flow" state, a very high degree of creativity and productivity. When somebody wants to play "just one more game," it's not because of some evil conspiracy on the part of game publishers to enslave their minds; it's because the game is good. But the public doesn't know this when they hear the word "addictive."

Another thing they don't know is that it's almost impossible to make a game addictive on purpose. Deliberate efforts to do so usually make it worse, not better. It only happens by luck, when some combination of circumstances just all falls together and the game achieves that quality. It's a bit like the Tao: those who set out to look for it are guaranteed not to find it. And even then, it doesn't happen for all people. Heroin is addictive to every human being and many other animals as well, but not all people will become addicted to a given computer game.

But even assuming that it were possible to design that into a game deliberately, I don't think it would be immoral to do so. Some people have that reaction to chocolate, but it's not immoral to make chocolate. I used to look forward with tremendous anticipation to each episode of Hill Street Blues, and to be sorry when each one was over (which is a little embarrassing to admit now, when I realize how much television has improved since then), but I wouldn't say the authors or the actors were being immoral. They were just making what I felt was a really, really good product, one that I enjoyed immensely at the time.

I used to look forward with tremendous anticipation to each episode of Hill Street Blues.

When I was a kid, it was not unusual for us to play whiffle ball six hours a day all summer long. It was great fun, and nobody objected to it. But if kids play a videogame six hours a day all summer long, they're rotting their minds with pernicious trash. Now it's true that whiffle ball is moderately good exercise, but as an intellectual stimulant, it's just above watching paint dry - certainly nowhere near as informative as playing Civilization, for example. Yet nobody complains that whiffle ball is rotting children's minds.

The biggest problem with the term "addictive," though, isn't the implied analogy between games and drugs. That's bad enough, but the biggest problem is the implied analogy between game developers and drug dealers. The one thing everybody "knows" about drug dealers is that they are evil, selfish, vicious criminals who care nothing for their customers and are only out to get as much money out of them as they can before the addict dies. And this is the image that we conjure up for ourselves when we describe our products as addictive.

It's entirely wrong, of course. Financially speaking, there's no similarity between games and addictive drugs. With a game sold at retail, the player only buys it once and can play it from then on for free. There's no incentive for the developer to make it addictive; rather the opposite. We make more money if the player gets tired of it and wants to go buy a different game. If a player becomes addicted to a single game, we lose money because she stops buying.

With on-line games it's a little different, but not much. In the old days, when players paid by the minute to play, there was a definite advantage to getting them hooked and keeping them on-line as long as possible. But nobody charges that way any more (except mobile phone companies). With a flat monthly subscription, in fact, we want them off-line as much as possible. Every minute the player stays on consumes bandwidth. The ideal player is one who pays the subscription and hardly logs in at all. Again, we actually lose money on addicted players.

But of course the public doesn't know this. They're not familiar with the financial workings of the game industry, and why should they be? All they hear is the word "addiction" and its connotations of vice, crime, sin, and death. Remember, most games played by children are bought by parents. How do you think most parents react to the word "addictive" when it applies to something they're considering buying for their child? And it's not just children's games; an adult unfamiliar with industry jargon (a prospective gamer, say) might be a bit leery of the word when applied to a game intended for him, too.

I propose that we - the game press, the PR departments, the marketers, and all us developers as well - adopt a different term. Rather than "addictive," I think we should call games "compelling." The word has the same force, but without the connotations of drug use, exploitation, and moral weakness that "addiction" conveys. It's true that "compelling" implies compulsion, a lack of free will, but when it's used of entertainment, people tend to think that the reason is the author's narrative brilliance rather than some evil plot to enslave the mind. When a movie review says "Compelling entertainment!" everybody knows that's a good thing and nobody considers it a red flag.

Stop calling games "addictive." It's just another bullet in a foot that has already taken quite a few.

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